Robert Fawcett: At the Scene of the Crime

From the moment he could hold a pencil, Robert Fawcett began to draw. It turned out he had a true talent for it. Born in England but raised mostly in Canada and then New York,  Fawcett dropped out of school at 14 to apprentice himself to an engraving shop and to work odd jobs until he had saved enough to support himself while studying at the Slate Art School in London for two years.

Returning to New York he took another 2 years painting for a one-man show while supporting himself with just enough commercial work to survive.

The one-man show was a huge success but the culture disillusioned him. He turned instead to illustrating stories and ads for magazines including The Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Holiday, and Cosmopolitan. 

  A collection of Fawcett’s illustrations for mystery stories follows. His drawings were meticulously researched and rendered in great detail. They set the stage for readers, luring them into the story. His work is legendary for a series of Sherlock Holmes tales in the early 1950s for Colliers. He also illustrated magazine stories for writers like Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Dorothy Cameron Disney. Fawcett believed the illustration should draw the reader to stop and ask themselves what’s going on in the picture, The painting for Too Late to Run is a prime example. The waitress behind the counter looks threatened by two menacing men. It’s after closing and no one else is in the diner and the waitress looks like she’s about to run.

Robert Fawcett - Illustration of waitress

Here’s a series Fawcett did for a Dorothy Cameron Disney novel, Mystery in Crockford in 1936 for Woman’s Home Companion. They show the artist’s flair for the dramatic using composition and color to set the mood. (Interestingly, Fawcett was color blind. Painting was not his strong suit. But he was a master draftsman and basically colored in his drawings.)

Robert Fawcett Illustration
Robert Fawcett Illustration
Robert Fawcett Illustration
Robert Fawcett Illustration
Robert Fawcett Illustration

A color spread done for Colliers in 1956. Dead Man’s Folly by Agatha Christie featured Hercule Poirot, here examining the victim lying on the boat house floor. The artist was trained at the Slade School of Art in London, drawing strictly from the figure for two straight years. His illustrations show a mastery of perspective that an architectural artist would be proud of. It was all self-taught through acute observation.

An investigator questions a judge in a Saturday Evening Post story from 1952. Note the architectural detail inside and outside. The shadow on the wall adds to an air of foreboding.

Robert Fawcett

From a 1953 story in Colliers. A murder suspect descends the stairs as Sherlock Holmes looks on with Watson and law officers. The architectural details of a baronet’s mansion lend an air of authenticity to the 1800s setting.

Robert Fawcett

Fawcett stages a final scene gathering all eleven suspects together as Hercule Poroit lays out his theory of the case.

One of the artist’s classic Sherlock Holmes spreads from 1953. Fawcett pictures the great detective’s lair in all it’s cluttered glory. His attention to the London architecture outside is typical of the research he did.

For the definitive work on Robert Fawcett I recommend “Robert Fawcett: The Illustrator’s Illustrator” by David Apatoff, published by Auad Publishing in 2010. But good luck finding it. The book has not been reprinted and copies on the net are scarce and expensive. I’m currently digitizing hundreds of Fawcett tear sheets and will be able to offer a flash drive with all I have gathered. In the not too distant future, I hope.
In the meantime beg the publisher and author to go to press with a second printing. There are fans waiting.

In upcoming posts I’ll cover some of Fawcett’s adverting illustrations and his 1960s reportage.

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